Phone Records

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 2006-05-16 Print this article Print

In the current case, USA Today recently reported that BellSouth, AT&T and Verizon had turned over their phone records to the government—without court orders. On May 16, BellSouth—which didnt object to the initial USA Today report—issued a statement that it had not provided "bulk customer calling records to the NSA."
A BellSouth spokesperson later clarified to the newspaper, adding that "We are not providing any information to the NSA, period."
For the moment, lets assume that BellSouth isnt playing coy and that they provided the data to the Defense Department or some other government agency. BellSouth suggested that the documents werent turned over because the White House never asked for them. Later on May 16, Verizon also issued a statement distancing itself from the deal. An Associated Press story reported: "The denials leave open the possibility that the NSA directed its requests to long-distance companies, which collect billing data on long-distance calls placed by local-service customers of BellSouth and Verizon." This differs materially from Qwest, which maintains that it was asked and that it refused the governments request. Beyond setting themselves up for a great TV campaign ("We protected your data from a warrantless search. Hey, its more than those other guys did, so cut us some slack here, OK?"), the Qwest move—if true—showed impressive guts. Read more here from columnist Larry Seltzer about the expectation of privacy. Telecom companies today are still very dependent on the government, and refusing any request that has even the faintest whiff of national security claims is not something they are going to take lightly. Like the classic line from the original "Godfather" film, "A refusal is not the act of a friend." This telecom data-sharing isnt limited to land lines. One of the major cell phone carriers has improved its hardware to the point where they can do—and have done—real-time location tracking of customers at whim. They can even defeat that time-honored gangster tactic of removing the SIM card to make the phone untraceable when the bandit calls the police to taunt them. The company has decided to not reveal such capabilities because it routinely shares this data—without warrants—with law-enforcement agents. The agents know the drill. Say the "terrorism connection" and "possibly in progress," and the information is immediately released. The carrier has decided to not reveal the capability for two reasons. First, the bad guys would quickly decide to purchase any phone other than this brand, and secondly, the privacy backlash could be severe. But maybe not. This news is shocking to everyone other than the most popular cell phone segment: young consumers. The tracing capabilities can—and have—been used for good, such as locating lost customers stranded on a mountain. The government says that domestic calls are not being monitored without a warrant, but that merely the phone numbers dialed are being handed over. Somehow, thats of little comfort. The numbers are the most sensitive part, and besides, a secretive government is not likely to volunteer if it was listening to the calls themselves. Lastly, its not like the secret anti-terrorism court involved—called FISA, for the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that created it—is especially hesitant to approve wiretaps. Count me among the cynical ones who assume that everything I do and say is being recorded and will be made public. I covered courts for years and quickly learned to think before I took any controversial action ("How would I feel if I had to testify about this someday?"). It may be paranoid, but its kept me on a fairly boring and mostly legal life. See? Cynicism has its advantages. Editors Note: This column was updated to include additional information about Verizon from an Associated Press story. Evan Schuman is retail editor for Ziff Davis Internets Enterprise Edit group. He has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop anytime soon. He can be reached at Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on technologys impact on retail.

Evan Schuman is the editor of's Retail industry center. He has covered retail technology issues since 1988 for Ziff-Davis, CMP Media, IDG, Penton, Lebhar-Friedman, VNU, BusinessWeek, Business 2.0 and United Press International, among others. He can be reached by e-mail at

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